The Sum of its Parts: Leaded glass lamp anatomy

 

The leaded glass or stained glass lamp, as it is sometimes referred to, is a unique member of the decorative arts with its own language and nomenclature. Collectors seeking information or knowledge of the leaded glass lamp are immediately confronted with a

Naturalistic lamp

Naturalistic lamp design is more freeflowing and forgoes regimented background. (Photo courtesy Joseph Porcelli)

number of descriptive terms that can easily lead to confusion, or worse, intimidation when considering a work either in an exhibition or for sale in a gallery, shop or through a dealer. In this article, I will begin to identify the many parts and aspects of a typical leaded glass lamp in an effort to familiarize current and novice lamp enthusiasts with the lingo that experienced artisans, collectors and dealers use when discussing or evaluating a leaded glass lamp and its composite elements.

Being a lamp designer and artist myself, I’ve had occasion to speak to many members of the leaded glass community, from dealers to collectors and enthusiasts, and found that in describing lamps, some terminology is shared and some is not; there can be various terms used to describe the same physical aspect of a lamp. What I will outline in this article are the most agreed upon terms used to identify the many elements that go into a leaded, or stained glass lamp.

Beginning at the top of the glass shade, we have an opening, usually referred to as its aperture. Apertures vary in diameter, anywhere from 2 inches (and sometimes even smaller) to larger, and are in proportion to the overall of the lamp. The largest aperture I’ve ever encountered was 8 inches in diameter on a very large, unnamed hanging lamp.

The aperture serves two major purposes. First and foremost, it presents a starting point for the construction of the lamp, as most leaded glass lamps are assembled from the top down. Secondly, if the aperture is not obscured by a permanently fixed finial with a central balancing point, it serves to level the lamp as it sits upon its base support, which is the preferable set up to insure proper leveling of the shade.

On a properly constructed shade, a substantial metal ring or collar is soldered into the aperture of the shade. This ring or collar adds great reinforcement to

Leaded glass lamp

Leaded glass lamp shade aperture. (Photo courtesy Joseph Porcelli)

the aperture, which is one of the lamp’s most vulnerable areas. It is at this point that most of the heat from the lamp base’s light bulb cluster accumulates. Because heat rises, a lamp aperture ring or collar needs to be substantial enough in mass to withstand this heat buildup without having any of the solder joints soften or fail over time in reaction to the heat. Any such failure, which can be aggravated by the downward gravitational weight of the shade, could eventually result in a separation of the leaded seams at the aperture. The mass of the ring or collar should also be in proportion to the overall size and weight of the lamp.

From the aperture, our discussion of the body of the lamp continues downward. It is here that the design of the lamp begins to take form.

Leaded glass lamp designs occur in three major styles: geometric, composite and naturalistic. A geometric design is self explanatory and best confirms the leaded glass lamp’s debt to mosaic pattern art; composite style consists of a mosaic style geometric or grid-like background, upon which imagery of some sort is superimposed and integrated into the whole. Naturalistic designs on the other hand, eschew the underlying geometric grid, giving the design a more realistic, free flowing character free of any regimented background. Traditionally, either style is usually represented by a series of repeats; a wallpaper-like repetition of a section of the design. These repeats happen three, four or sometimes even more times around the surface of the lamp (Tiffany’s large Dragonfly design repeats nine times). Repeats provide a very balanced dispersion of the design elements as the eye travels around the shade. More challenging, all-over, non-repeating designs do exist and are quite exciting to view. Repeats are most common.

The shape of the most common lamp can be divided into five major areas: the neck, dome, shoulder, skirt and edge. The neck begins where the first row of glass meets the aperture ring or collar. This could be the first row of a geometric design or background, a

Tuck-under on lamp

The return or “tuck-under” treatment takes more skill to execute, but adds interest to the shade design. (Photo courtesy Joseph Porcelli)

single row of mosaic-like geometric pieces (a very common design technique on most Tiffany style lamps) or a bold entry into the major imagery of the lamp sans any border.

The dome of the shade usually represents the largest surface area of most lamps and is where the major business of the lamp’s design takes place. There are exceptions, like the Tiffany 26-inch Peony Border where the imagery is limited to the skirt portion of the form, an area we will discuss shortly. The dome is usually cone shaped or gently rounded and continues down the surface of the lamp form until we reach the next area of the lamp, the shoulder.

A lamp’s shoulder is a transitional section between the dome and the skirt. On most forms it is identified by the sharpest curvature of the form. In an intelligently designed example, the shoulder will consist of either smaller sections of glass, or a geometric pattern of some kind, where the individual flat panes of glass are small enough to comfortably assume the shape of the shoulder, thus conforming to the graceful curve of the form.

Below the shoulder, we encounter the skirt, usually a vertical expanse that continues to the bottom edge of the shade. This area of the lamp varies in size. It can be a continuation of the major imagery of the design or a combination of such, plus single or multiple geometric rows used to guide the viewer’s eye to a stop.

As we finish our journey, we come to the second most vulnerable part of any shade, its finished edge. Here, we encounter one of two design treatments, a straight edge or an irregular edge. The straight horizontal edge speaks for itself, and if properly reinforced will provide a substantial amount of strength to the widest open area of the shade. It also adds a pleasing strong horizontal line of reference when viewing the shade on its base.

An irregular edge, on the other hand, is more naturalistic. Being free of a strong horizontal

Irregular leaded glass lamp

An irregular edge gives the impression of the lamp design continuing into space. (Photo courtesy Joseph Porcelli)

visual stop, it gives the impression of the lamp design continuing into space. Improperly reinforced or edge-damaged shades will feel flimsy and flexible at this point. Properly reinforced shades will have a band, or ring of uninterrupted metal, usually copper or brass or solder-reinforced wire, preferably the same thickness of the glass, permanently fused to the bottom border of glass.

Reinforcement

The term reinforcement is not limited to identifying the top and bottom-most metal additives to a lamp. On leaded lamps that approach 20 inches in diameter and wider, the network of glass and metal (the leadlines) can be further strengthened by applying reinforcing elements to the underside or interior of the lamp. Such added reinforcement can be compared to the expanding ribs of an umbrella. They contribute greatly to the vertical structural integrity of the lamp, and usually consist of thin brass or copper wires running along the interior leadlines of the design. They are attached and covered over, virtually hidden within a layer of solder, and if applied correctly, are undetectable from the outside of the lamp. Unfortunately, not all larger lamps are reinforced as such.Those that are represent a more conscientious understanding of the structure and limitations of the leaded glass lamp form, and of course incur more labor and materials from a production standpoint.

Thus we have discussed the major parts of a leaded glass lamp, and as is the case with any decorative art form, there are variations and exceptions that represent either a particular style or, in some cases, the whims of the individual designers. One such variation is what is called a return or a tuck-under treatment of a lamp’s shape. With such, the shoulder section of a shape continues its curve inward to the point that the curve returns, or tucks under the shape of the lamp as it approaches its bottom edge, thus reducing the bottom diameter of what would be, for instance, a 16-inch diameter shade, to 15 inches. Many lamp designers took advantage of this design alternative. Although it calls upon a more skillful approach to leaded lamp assembly, it adds interest to the visual experience.

Attachments

Invariably, imagination sometimes calls for artistic or design effects that go beyond the limitations of a medium, and to satisfy such demands, invention comes to the rescue. It is easy to imagine how an element like metal filigree would serve such a purpose. Filigree, in the context of the leaded or stained glass lamp, consists of a decorative sheet of thin metal, usually brass, that has been etched or treated so as to create small openings or cut-outs in the metal, forming a silhouette, or screen of some pre-conceived pattern or

Lamp shoulder

The shoulder is a transitional section between the dome and the skirt. (Photo courtesy Joseph Porcelli)

design. The most common application of filigree can be found in the Tiffany Dragonfly or Poppy Lamps. By applying a layer of filigree to a large expanse of glass, the silhouette of the filigree gives the viewer a detail-rich image (especially when the lamp is lit) that would have been virtually impossible to create with tiny leaded pieces of colored glass. In some lamp designs, commonly those that incorporate curved panels of glass, an overlay of filigree creates a complete image such as a landscape or intricate pattern.

Beadwork is another popular decorative attachment to leaded glass lamps. Rows of metal beads can be found in a number of positions on a lamp, most often attached to the top, or bottom, or both borders. Strictly an embellishment, when applied in the right context, beads can enhance the stylistic goals of the design.

Patina

Lastly, we come to the final decorative, and in some cases artistic, element of a leaded glass lamp, its patina. With patina, we enter an area of special consideration. What appears as a simple finish to the metal surfaces of a leaded glass lamp can actually represent the result of a complex, time and effort-consuming unique art and craft in itself, far removed from the lamp building process. A patina finish can range anywhere from a simple blackening of the exposed metal surfaces of the lamp, to a rich, deep multicolored enhancement to an already pleasing visual experience. Traditionally, the most desirable patina colorations are in the brown, brownish-green and reddish-brown-green families of finishes. These are the result of a multi-staged application of metal plating and coloring techniques, complex chemical recipes and skill. The reward of this easily overlooked detail is a unifying, sculptural feel to the lamp’s metalwork, one that enhances not only the unlit look of a leaded glass lamp, but also its value.

Despite all that we have covered, the anatomy of a leaded glass lamp cannot be complete without a discussion of its primary element, glass. Additionally, a lamp’s base and hanging hardware also contribute to the overall viewing experience. We will discuss both in future articles.

About our columnist: A craftsperson since 1979. He is the former publisher of Glass Craftsman Magazine, the producer and publisher of the GCTV line of glass instructional videos, and the author of “The Lamp Making Handbook” and “Stained Glass, Jewels of Light.” He is currently a full-time glass artist, whose original lamps and bronze bases have fetched record auction prices for contemporary leaded glass. www.josephporcellistudio.com

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